This blog and the associated website are called Modern Novel for a very good and obvious reason: they are about the modern novel. Nearly all reviews are reviews of literary novels. However, every so often a short story or non-fiction work creeps in. This non-fiction work – The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction – may well be the most interesting work on the contemporary novel since Martin Seymour-Smith’s The New Guide to Modern World Literature, first published in 1973 and substantially revised in 1985. Despite being over thirty years out of date, I still regularly browse it. Seymour-Smith sadly died in 1998 and no-one took up the mantle, till now.
Anyone who reads this blog and the associated website will be well aware of The Complete Review and The Literary Saloon, its associated blog. It is a prodigious piece of work: a daily blog with several entries, every single day of the year, as well as reviews of a wide variety of books, though mainly novels in translation, almost every day of the year. I have often wondered how Michael Orthofer, who produces both on his own, manages it. Not only is the quantity high, so is the quality. There is always something to learn, some new book you will not have heard of or will have heard of but have not yet read, some new prize winner, announcement or other literary titbit, often accompanied by Michael’s (often acerbic) comments. You will have no doubt where Michael stands on a variety of writers and literary goings-on and other related matters. Yet now, he finds time to produce a 496 page book on the topic.
When I discussed this with Michael earlier this year, he said that I would learn little from it. He was, of course, completely wrong. I like to think that I know more than most about literary fiction in the modern world, yet I learned so much from this book. There were authors I had not heard of, books I had not heard of by authors I had heard of, and books I had heard of but had not read and was inspired, by reading Michael’s comments, to move them up my ever increasing, enormous pile of books to read. In short, I would challenge anyone, even Seymour-Smith, were he still alive, to not come away from this book, having discovered something new, be it a new author or a book not heard of.
The book has a long introduction about the world of translated literary fiction, book-selling and the like which, again, will reveal new information to even the hardiest of literary book bloggers. This is followed by sections, divided up by region and country (including English-speaking ones), where we get details of authors and their works. Pretty well the entire world is covered, though, as I know and Michael points out, there are a few areas of the world where there are few novels available in translation. The obvious limits are that he concentrates on books in English translation, which means that countries with very limited literary production such as Chad and São Tomé and Principe do not get a look in but, unless you read French or Portuguese, this is not an issue. Every country which has produced books that have appeared in translation is included, often in some detail. It concludes with an appendix on translation by numbers and an appendix of other useful sources on modern literary fiction.
Are there gaps? Yes, of course there are. He states quite clearly that he will focus on countries that write in languages other than English, so that this is probably not the book to turn to for the contemporary novel in the USA or the UK, though both are covered. Obviously, his tastes and mine do not always coincide and nor will his taste and yours but that is a good thing, not least as it makes you look at books and authors you have previously rejected with a new eye. However, I am never going to take to Scandi-crime, whatever Michael or anyone else may say in its favour. But these are minor quibbles. This book is a very worthy successor to Seymour-Smith and it will be a book I turn to frequently, both for browsing and for consulting on specific authors/books. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in contemporary fiction should get this book, which is published next week, 5 April. You will learn a lot.